A phone call from a stranger in 1947 changed the life of one young American Jew and played a small role in founding a Jewish state.
A veteran of the U.S. Navy in World War II, ready to enter college on the GI Bill to study engineering, Paul Kaye, then 19, was working in a Manhattan office. He answered the phone. “Would you like to help your people?” a voice asked. Go to the corner of Lexington and 39th Street, the stranger said. Look for a man with a black leather jacket carrying a newspaper under his arm; follow the man. Then, “click.”
“I thought it was a joke,” Kaye recalled.
But, intrigued, he went. He saw the man in the leather jacket. “I followed him,” into a nearby office building. The man introduced himself as a representative of an organization in pre-statehood Palestine that was buying and repairing ships that would bring Holocaust survivors from Europe to the Holy Land, in defiance of the British White paper that barred Jewish immigration.
Experienced crewmembers were needed, the man said. “Will you go?” The man explained the possible risks; captured crewmembers could be hanged.
Kaye went to the port of Baltimore, where one ship was about to sail, the next day.
Through Israel’s 1948 War of Independence Kaye served as a warrant officer in the nascent Israeli Navy, among some 1,300 men and women from the United States and Canada who volunteered in the military forces of Palestine-Israel in the months before, during, and after the establishment of the State of Israel.
Their story, long a footnote in modern Jewish history, is getting a second life these days.
When Kaye came back to the U.S., he became involved in Zionist activities, keeping the memory of his fellow volunteers alive.
The movement that brought these men and women — mostly young, mostly Jewish, mostly veterans of WWII — to the shores of the Mediterranean was known as Machal (Hebrew for Mitnavdei Chutz L’Eretz, volunteers from outside the land of Israel) and the volunteers are known as Machalniks.
They had expertise and military training that few sabras or Holocaust survivors did.
“Because they possessed skills that many Palestinian Jews lacked, the Machalniks filled … gaps in Israel’s military, as tank and jeep drivers, and as medical personnel,” states a background sheet for an exhibit, “Heroes from Abroad: The Machal/Aliyah Bet Legacy,” which opened recently at the Center for Jewish History.
The first major exhibit on the topic in New York City, it is sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society and was curated by Machalnik Ralph Lowenstein, emeritus dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.
The exhibit tells the story of the volunteers, their military service and role in the “illegal” aliyah, their contributions and the price they paid. Forty Machalniks from North America were killed in the War of Independence.
The exhibit, whose recent opening was accompanied by a panel discussion on the legacy of Machal, was designed as an introduction to the Machal archives — photos and memoirs and other artifacts — also compiled by Lowenstein, which the AJHS recently received; some of the contents will be digitalized, says Susan Malbin, director of the AJHS library and archives.
“We’re not a museum. We are a repository for historians and scholars,” said Jonathan Karp, the Society’s executive director. “We have documents in abundance.”
The exhibit, Karp said, is intended to interest the Jewish community in studying and researching the often-overlooked history of Machal. “It is important,” he says of the Machal story, “but it’s not a well-known story.”
Unlike Americans David “Mickey” Marcus, the soldier who became Israel’s first general in two millennia and the protagonist of the 1966 film “Cast a Giant Shadow” starring Kirk Douglas, and Al Schwimmer, the former TWA flight engineer who founded the forerunner of Israeli Aircraft Industries, most Machalniks, now in their 80s or older, returned to their homelands after their volunteer service. There, they resumed their old lives and didn’t brag about their wartime exploits.
“These were men and women who risked everything,” Karp said. A total of 119 men and four women Machalniks were killed in action. “This is the last opportunity to honor them and tell their story.”
What drove the Machalniks?
“Primarily, they were motivated by Jewish solidarity and concern for the security of the small Yishuv [Jewish community] in its struggle for survival,” a Machal brochure published by the Israeli Ministry of Education states. “Some, including non-Jews, were moved by the plight of the Jewish people.”
The AJHS (ajhs.org), which will mount a display of Machal books later this year and is working on a Machal curriculum for Jewish schools, will honor Lowenstein and all Machalniks at its Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award Dinner on May 4 at the Center. (For information:  294-6160; firstname.lastname@example.org.)
As part of a current renaissance in Machal interest, documentary maker and Machalnik Ira Feinberg, like Kaye a former president of the American Veterans of Israel organization, recently released “My Brothers Keeper,” a new documentary on the veterans’ experiences and a 2008 reunion in Israel.
The documentary (email@example.com) is available at the Center’s gift shop.
“The story of Machal is vital. If it were not for Machal, there wouldn’t be a State of Israel,” Feinberg said. His statement, while hyperbolic — sabras and Holocaust survivors, quickly drafted into service, did most of the actual fighting in the war — underscores the volunteers’ contributions.
Machal pilots guarded the Israeli borders, transported weapons from Europe and supplies to fighters behind the front lines, and carried thousands of refugees from Arab countries.
The total of some 3,500-4,500 volunteers from 56 overseas countries, mostly English-speaking ones (English became the day-to-day language among Air Force personnel), played a crucial role in the early days of the state, according to the sabranet.com web site. “The first naval commanders, the first radar technicians, the first heavy artillery gunners, the first tank commanders, the first senior infantry commanders, the first fighter and bomber pilots, the first surgeons for eye wounds and burns were Machal volunteers. And Machalniks manned the 10 ‘Aliya Bet’ ships that brought 31,000 Holocaust survivors to Mandatory Palestine … That’s half of all illegal immigrants who arrived through Aliya Bet.”
One reason Machal’s history faded from Jewish memory is that the volunteers, often fearing prosecution back home for smuggling weapons or for serving in a foreign army, were reticent to discuss what they had done; and Israel, reluctant to honor Jews who, contrary to the spirit of Zionism, had not decided to make aliyah, chose to shine its spotlight on its own citizens.
“People are surprised [to learn about the Machalniks],” said Simon Spiegelman, a Holocaust survivor who spent four months in Machal.
A Manhattan resident, he also served as a president of American Veterans of Israel. Like Kaye and Feinberg, he keeps many Machal mementoes displayed in his home.
Kaye said he was always aware of the danger he faced while in Machal. Asked if it was worth the risk, he said, “Yes. I wanted to help my people. We helped make a state.”